Smart one! A rant on women and hyper digital urban living

May 14, 2019

     By Maria Faciolince     

Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar at WSRC, Brandeis University, USA. Combining experiential and desk research, she explores the broader connections between women’s struggles and urban living in India.

 Within the realm of social development, I have fervently used a gender lens to understand the “smart city” as an urban policy mechanism. Why? Because the city as a living space is used by women and men in ways that are gendered, and often contested.

For instance, men and women have distinct needs for public transport. Often women are the primary caregivers, and therefore must make more trips on public transport so as to meet the different needs within families and communities. Issues such as poor lighting and signage, secluded areas and lack of maintenance in public spaces present risks for women who need to use public transport early in the morning or after dark. 

Living ‘smart’ lives

Given that urban living and being “smart” has become the order of the day, how do we fathom the impact on women and men – citizens, communities and nations?

The rush for hardwiring through “smart city” policies has spread throughout the world. Countries have copied each other. Or rather, what was developed in the U.S has been transplanted to Brazil and taken to India. There has been a certain universal appeal to smart city planning, where cities can address increasing urban growth by managing a range of infrastructure, transit, utilities, and connectivity challenges. City administrators are also harnessing data-driven intelligence, making big investments in computing technology to gather data that can provide measurable insights for their urban planning strategies.

Of course, there has been excitement. Often “smart” and “resilient” appear in the same sentence in the documentation. Cities emphasize “smart” planning for the future that empowers citizens and leaders to make “data-driven” decisions and help build strong “resilient communities”.  In the global North, manifestations of the latest technology are e-governance, smart lighting solutions, and advanced traffic monitoring. Big data is also used for predictive analytics and early warning systems.

But all of this fuss is experienced differently on an individual level. We usually experience smart technology through our Internet, phones, credit cards, online banking, and online communications. Social media has taken over our overall communication. Smart social dashboards create opportunities for citizens to record concerns and generate comparisons across different areas, time, user types and sentiments.


So what’s the problem?

How about data, for a start?

Home automation & information capture courtesy of Alexa.
Image credit: Control4

“Smart” technologies also infiltrate the home, and are riddled with privacy issues. At home “Alexa” takes on chores. (I wonder why a female name was chosen – apparently Star Trek had something to do with it, but even so, isn’t it suspicious that ‘she’ can be asked to do things?). Conversations taking place in the privacy of homes are being shared with Amazon employees to make its AI smarter – something Google and Apple also do with Assistant and Siri respectively. But most consumers are unaware that Alexa recordings are being passed along to Amazon employees around the world. These recordings might have information that identify the person speaking and can turn into a path for data abuse. Similar devices are being used to make cities “smart” and are putting citizens through digitized recordings of their personal data. The world over, it seems that people who live in cities are entering a data lab that measures every move.

Moreover, “smart city” policies would not be able to be implemented without the deluge of apps that have now become part of urban lives and living. Let’s take the example of ride share services from the gig economy that we use so often. As a “smart” commuting option, Uber, Lyft et al. provide easy access to easy, cash-free and quick transportation. Within the United States, Uber has made it normal to conduct surveillance. Through its app, Uber collects and analyzes data; it knows the drivers, and customers, where they go, who they meet and what they eat. The ‘smartification of the city’ requires urban dwellers to be using their technologies at all times.

The brand’s messaging includes providing a safe ride home after a night out. For many women, ride-share apps can especially be useful late at night to avoid dangerous situations, such as walking or taking public transit alone, or driving under the influence. However, reported assaults on women by drivers have been far too frequent. Since Uber presented women passengers a safe ride home, attacking them when they are vulnerable is an assault on their human rights. Through an app, a person shares who she is, where she is, her name, her preference – details that make her sign her rights away. Despite heightened technology, one cannot overrule the fact that while crossing gendered urban spaces, women remain vulnerable. At this time further checks on drivers and surveillance have been added to prevent assaults from recurring.

In both global North and South, assaults on women are being recorded using smartphones. Multimedia messaging and videos are used for male voyeuristic entertainment and to intimidate, blackmail and bully women and girls and members of the LGBTQI community.

Imagine a scenario where smart policies are introduced to a population where there is a strong and preexisting digital divide. In countries such as India, smart cities policy makes scant reference to gendered planning of cities. Other than placing CCTVs and surveillance, planned and engaged gender participation is missing in the smart cities mission. Most crimes against women are perpetrated in cities. The HLRN reports that in 2016 over 40,000 cases of assault, aggression, threat and other forms of crimes against women were reported in metropolitan cities.

How do women use urban spaces?
What do they need to have rights to the city? Other important
considerations for urban planners in India and beyond.
Image credit: Meena Kadri, CC license

In addition, Indian women and men are part of the rampant hardwiring with or without consent. As part of initiating the smart processes the government has made it mandatory for every citizen to be assigned a unique identification number, which is presented in what is called the “Adhaar card.” This card, which authenticates a person through biometric information, is linked to a person’s bank details, purchase, travel and income tax filing. The government can share user data “in the interest of national security,” a term that remains dangerously undefined. At this time the benefits to the card are still to be determined. Incidentally, a smart option such as the Adhaar card requires women to submit their father’s, husband’s or brother’s name.


What’s missing: gender-aware urban planning policies

There remain a lot of unanswered questions in understanding the role and significance of gender in urban policy. In India, representation of urban planners per 100,000 people is exceptionally low, at just 0.23; the need for women’s voices and representation in urban planning processes as well as in urban local decision-making is even more pronounced. This lack of women’s participation and the ambiguity towards other gender groups is tantamount to exclusion and a lack of sustainable ideas. No wonder an urban design that fails to incorporate women’s need for safety and security can and has led to an increased risk of violence for women

Though feminist scholarship has revved up conversations on gendered spaces, urban planning has not yet been able to include the dynamic nature of these extended discussions. For a critical and truly inclusive conversation, a gender lens needs to be a priority in all administrative planning and policy measures. Urban policy needs to recognise women’s right to the city and to safe spaces and women’s role in shaping the cities they live in.

Top featured image credit: Peter Tandlund, CC license